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Review of Southeast Asian Cartoon Art: Histories, Trends and Problems

By Jeremy Stoll

With Southeast Asian Cartoon Art, John A. Lent and his fellow contributors provide an overview of comics and cartoon art in an often overlooked geographic area for Comics Studies. The anthology includes histories of comics and their cultures in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Burma, and Malaysia, as well as their many overlaps. Although half of the articles are authored by Lent himself, his detailed and careful eye for detail provides a welcome lens for understanding what makes each culture unique. In particular, the separate chapters of this volume unite in shining a light on the experiences and difficulties that creators, publishers, readers, and aficionados alike face in these regions. The volume thus works to establish a strong foundation for scholarship of Southeast Asia’s vibrant comics communities.

The book is broken down into two sections: “Historical & Contemporary Overviews” and “Socio-Cultural & Political Issues.” Preceding these is a Preface by Lent, where he details the current situation of Southeast Asian cartoon art. He specifically traces the American and Japanese influence on the history of comics in these regions. He notes that the legacy of post-colonialism and cultural hierarchies established a ‘snobbish’ bias against the medium, especially amongst academics. Lent also notes changes in public awareness of comics and cartoons as moving from an understanding of it as children’s entertainment to one that appreciates its greater diversity. He then provides a useful introduction to the regional history of comics as a medium, detailing some of the events that broadly affected authors and creators in Southeast Asia. Lent’s preface specifically identifies a renewed interest in comics that arises from four important changes that he tracks from the 1990s onwards. These include the shift of distribution to cafes, comic shops, and bookstores, the rise of graphic novels and underground or alternative comics, the popularity of spin-offs or comics adaptations, and the increasingly important role of women in the industry. Most importantly, he frames the entire volume as focusing on industrial perspectives of print cartooning, which sidesteps digital or web-based comics and cartoons for reasons that are generally detailed within each piece.

The articles in the first section share a common interest in surveying the development of each country’s comics culture. In “Cartooning in Indonesia: An Overview,” Lent details the history of a visual humor tradition with roots in traditional puppetry that led to contemporary associations, studios, and workshops situated in a global context. Indonesian comics’ vast range of influences includes early Dutch periodicals, a golden age of locally relevant stories, and the stagnation and revival resulting from an influx of international comics. The next chapter, “Philippine Komiks: From 1928 to Present,” surveys the unique qualities of komiks as inherently hybrid due to cross-mediation and globalization. Lent notes how this quality leads to an overall increase in genres and public awareness, with increased recognition and professionalism alongside the rise of self-publishing. In “The Uphill Climb to Reach a Plateau: Historical Analysis of the Development of Thai Cartooning,” Warat Karuchit quotes Lent’s work on this comics tradition in order to support his argument that Thailand represents “one of the most liberal cartoon situations in all of Southeast Asia” (qtd. in Karuchit 75). Karuchit updates the Thai situation with detailed profiles of time periods, publications, and publishers; in this way, he is able to show how creators have established a unique scene within an oppressive political climate, lack of readers, and manga-dominated market. Lent then details the relatively recent history of Cambodian visual narratives in “The Swerving Status of Cambodian Comic Art,” in which he discusses how this industry is driven by individuals and small-scale operations. In so doing, he provides a clear depiction of a community where non-profit and non-governmental organizations support and celebrate comics culture through workshops, exhibitions, and other efforts. The final article, “Cartooning in Vietnam: A Brief Overview,” also by Lent, addresses the difficulties faced by Vietnamese comics culture because of its colonial roots and domination by Western and then Japanese imports. His focus is the many disruptions of home-front warfare and authoritarian regimes that have led to a uniquely unstable and uncertain comics scene, where creators have regularly faced imprisonment, censorship, low pay, and a bias against the form. On the whole, each of these articles helps to establish an important resource for vividly illustrating comics and cartoon art in an understudied area where these forms play an important role.

The second section is more diverse, with articles that take a variety of approaches related to social, cultural, and political analysis. In “Chinese Cartoonists in Singapore: Chauvinism, Confrontation, and Compromise (1950-1980),” Lim Cheng Tju details how cartoonists negotiated the volatile establishment of the nation in order to illustrate the disharmony that preceded a multicultural Singapore. In particular, Lim demonstrates how a mixture of idealist and chauvinist cartoonists allowed idealism to give way to professionalism. In so doing, such a transformation diluted the medium’s power by giving into anti-intellectualism over other potential applications. In contrast, the following article, “Political Cartoons and Burma’s Transnational Public Sphere” by Lisa Brooten, takes a discursive approach to cartoon art by analyzing critical events of the recent Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis within a selection of Burmese political cartoons produced in exile. With a stated goal of analyzing how cartoons contribute to an emergent, transnational public sphere, alongside a brief history of the form in this context, Brooten argues that cartoons simplify events in order to construct identity through opposition. Finally, in the relatively short “Cartoonist Lat and Malaysian National Identity: An Appreciation,” Muliyadi Mahamood describes how one comics creator reflects a larger Malaysian multiethnic identity in his work. Through a survey of Lat’s work as politically neutral, sensitive to customs, critically subtle, and demonstrative of Malay aesthetic values and cultural tensions, Mahamood shows how a single creator can demonstrate the potential power of cartoon art for connecting with communities.

Together, the articles in this second section seem only to provide a partial picture of the cultural, social, and political implications of comics and cartoon art in Southeast Asia. In particular, each piece leaves a certain aspect of their analysis undefined. In Lim’s essay, it is unclear how the pragmatics of adapting to a current political situation represent a form of intellectual laziness on the part of cartoonists. Meanwhile, in Brooten’s piece, the method of choosing cartoons is not clearly explained although she does note that all but one were produced by two creators, which is an element that could have added greater depth to her analysis of an emergent public sphere. Mahamood’s piece seems almost too positive in its celebration of Lat as reflecting a harmoniously multiethnic Malaysia, especially alongside Lim’s emphasis on analyzing the false harmony of multiculturalism. Yet, each of these issues may have been resolved by a more expansive Preface or a concluding chapter that explained how their various accounts of cartoon art come together in understanding the broader portrait of this region’s comics cultures. Indeed, despite the above issues, the detailed analysis that each author contributes to the volume adds to its overall strength in demonstrating the vibrant comics and cartoon worlds of Southeast Asia.

Overall, Southeast Asian Cartoon Art functions much as intended: as a detailed survey and evocative illustration of the communities, politics, cultures, and histories that form around comics and cartoon art in this region. Insofar as it fills in a gap within the scholarship, the volume is successful. Furthermore, while dominating the articles included, Lent’s detailed and artful prose will guide readers through historical time periods, creators’ profiles, and analyses of specific works with ease. Indeed, the more troubling moments in this collection occur when a few of the authors attempt to summarize the power of the comics medium in terms of simplification or other specific qualities, especially since the volume as a whole illustrates the diverse and unique ways in which cartoonists and comics creators in different places mobilize the medium in different ways. In addition, methods for fieldwork and standards for judgment are sometimes unclear, especially when authors claim that certain examples are obviously exceptional or that certain creators are clearly masters of the form. A more comprehensive Introduction or Conclusion may have resolved these issues by more clearly delineating methodologies and frameworks and by tying together the individual pieces into a holistic understanding of scholarly approaches to Southeast Asian comics and cartoons.

However, even the addition of an Introduction or Conclusion to frame this volume would merely strengthen what is already an insightful and incredibly detailed account of this region’s cartoon and comics culture. In particular, the selected articles together illustrate many common factors and influences within Southeast Asian cartoon art, including the influence of a larger socio-historical context, imported comics, censorship, politics, trans and cross-mediation, gender, and the need for greater training and a living wage. Throughout these accounts, creators’ perspectives are often given a central place in the analysis, such that they provide potential explanations for difficulties or transformations in their own communities and cultures. The emphasis on the experiences of creators and other members of cartoon and comics scenes is essential both in detailing the history of these traditions and in countering the dominance of literary perspectives within Comics Studies that so often discount insiders’ perspectives. Perhaps most importantly, then, the many, detailed profiles of comics, cartoons, creators, publishers, other institutions, and time periods within each context provide an important resource for the international study of comics and cartoon art. In particular, scholars utilizing cultural, social, and historical approaches to the comics medium will appreciate how the stories of individual members and communities reveal the importance of the medium, from comic books to cartoons, comic strips, and its many other iterations. In the final analysis, in illustrating the many histories, industries, experiences, conflicts, and contexts that surround comics and cartoon art in Southeast Asia, Lent and the contributors to this volume have provided a priceless resource for scholars, practitioners, readers, and generations to come.

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